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A Brief History of Luxury Transatlantic Travel

A Brief History of Luxury Transatlantic Travel

In an episode of the popular British television drama series, Downton Abbey, one of the main characters, Robert, Earl of Grantham is summoned to America by his demanding mother-in-law.  His brother-in-law, millionaire playboy Harold Levinson, has become embroiled in hot political scandal and needs the English peer’s moral support.  The scandal is the Teapot Dome Scandal, which is considered by many commentators to be the most serious and damaging scandal in American Politics prior to Watergate.

Fired on by the urgency of the situation he orders his valet to pack for the journey.  Just the essentials that an aristocrat in the 1920s might need on such a journey.  Enough to require a second car to follow with all the luggage.  The fictional Downton Abbey is situated in rural Yorkshire, so presumably the party head off westward toward Liverpool.  From there they book a passage on the steam ship, the SS Cameronia.

The S.S. Cameronia was owned by the Anchor Line, a subsidiary of the Cunard Line and entered service on the 11th May 1921, sailing from her port of registration in Glasgow, first to Liverpool and then on to New York.  Powered by six Beardmore steam turbines turning twin screw propellers, she could crack along at a feisty 16 knots. 

At such a walloping speed, and barring any unforeseen incidents of the 3,140-mile journey across the North Atlantic, the Cameronia could have expected to arrive in New York about ten days after leaving England.

Right up until the 1960s, the only way to cross the Atlantic for many people, was by ship.  The Port Liverpool was the beating heart of the Atlantic shipping business. Both the Cunard Lines and the White Star Lines were based in the city. 

Hundreds of thousands of people passed through the passenger terminals on their way to America.  Many escaping the bleak living conditions and poor work opportunities in Europe and leaving once and for all to seek a new start and a new life in America, the land of their dreams. There were tourists from both sides, using their new found wealth to travel and explore.  There were starry eyed actors on their way to make it big Hollywood, and celebrities from Hollywood embarking on European tours to try and add lustre their fading glory. There were businessmen looking for new opportunities and wealth in the new world.  And blustering old aristocrats rushing to the aid of beleaguered relatives with their wealth and titles.

At the height of the transatlantic trade the lives of tens of thousands of ordinary people were inextricably entwined with the liners and their human cargoes. As the majestic steamers approached the harborside and the passengers began to gather themselves and their luggage for disembarkation, a secret army of workers began to assemble. As the very last passenger stepped onto the quayside, these myriads of highly skilled artisans swarmed onto the ship armed with the tools and materials of their trades.  There were carpenters, plumbers, painters and decorators, cleaners, reupholsters, seamstresses and many more.  They worked furiously to get the liner ready for the next trip across the Atlantic.

In the days of coal fired boilers, a liner would need something in the region 500 railway wagons of coal, which would take a whole day to load into the coal bunkers.  At this time the air would be thick with coal dust, and every surface in the ship would be covered with sheets, but even then, it would take a further day to thoroughly clean the ship from top to bottom.

Liverpool also became a city of over 300 laundries, from modern mechanized industrial scale units to local women and families, many of them Chinese, working in their own homes. 
Each ship would need 10,000s of sheets, towels, napkins and uniforms to be washed, ironed and repaired at every turn around.  And each ship would need to be stocked with tens of thousands of pounds of food and supplies to keep the crews and passengers well fed and watered on the long sea voyages.

On his journey to New York, Lord Grantham would have shared the experienced with up to 265 fellow passengers in first class accommodation, with 370 in second and 1,100 in third.  I imagine his valet would have spent his days working in first class and then would have retired to a third-class cabin for the night.  It is interesting to learn that in 1928 the Cameronia had to undergo a refit with the purpose of trying to correct the ship’s tendency to pitch heavily, so maybe the passage to America was not as relaxing or as comfortable as it might have been.

The first people to fly across the Atlantic were pioneering British aviators John Alcock and Arthur Brown.  They made the first non-stop transatlantic flight in June 1919 in a modified First World War bomber, flying from St. John’s in Newfoundland, to Clifden, County Galway, in Ireland.

But it wasn’t until the 4th of October 1958, that a British Overseas Aircraft Corporation (BOAC) de Havilland DH. 106 Comet made the first scheduled commercial transatlantic crossing. That event saw the beginning of the demise of the luxury transatlantic liners and the rise of the, trans global jet liners, offering cheap and easy passage to every corner of the earth.

Modern aircraft can offer unparalleled levels of comfort and convenience, such as Delta First Class, and many other first and business class services for the most discerning and demanding customers.  The passage to New York took Lord Grantham ten days, but today the same journey can be made in eight hours.  Passengers can rest and relax watching the latest movies, enjoy fine gourmet dining, set up office and take advantage of inflight Wi-Fi, or even just pull up a blanket and have a sleep.

Just as sail gave way to steam, and coal gave way to oil, a new technology is poised to take control of the skies. In September 2022, the world’s first all-electric plane took to the air on an eight-minute flight above the skies of Washington, USA. 

This is just the beginning of the next exciting chapter in the history of travel.  At a time of global warming and with the world looking for alternative sources of energy, electric motors can offer a world of opportunity with the promise of zero emissions.  And who knows, one day we may even be able to book a passage on a luxury cruiser for a scheduled flight to Mars. Port Out Starboard Home of course.